Life is Good after Refugee Camp

Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God Rule of Benedict

You would never guess what Sr. Jozefa Seskar's life was like as a girl to meet her now, at 78, scuttling happily down the hallway at St. Mary Monastery in Rock Island. Four-foot-ten if she's an inch, she peers up from under a shock of silver hair and grins at anyone coming her way. If you need a hug, she'll sling her cane on her arm and press her smooth, peaches-and-cream cheek against yours. "God love you," she'll beam, nodding, before she buzzes off. She has a list of duties to attend to, from hemming a skirt to piecing baby quilts and distributing in-house mail.

Sr. Jozefa's joy is contagious: you go back to work renewed. But her joy was hard won. It survived and grew despite a childhood of wrenching turbulence. Sr. Jozefa, now a Sister of St. Benedict at St. Mary Monastery in Rock Island, was 14 years old when the spring that changed everything dawned. Her voice is quiet but clear. Her words come quickly, tumbling and tangling as she gropes impatiently for the English words that are not part of her native tongue.

"My father died on April 12, 1941," she says, "and my mother died 18 days later. At her wake, we could see Italian soldiers marching toward our village. The Germans were coming from another direction. For the next few months, my sisters and I tried to keep the farm going. I took care of the cows and horses, and my other sisters took care of the pigs and cooked. We all helped with the fieldwork.

"Then the Italians took all our men and boys to an island and starved them. The mayors pleaded for their release. When my brother, Ivan, came home, I almost didn't recognize him. He was just skin and bones."

By now, the Communists had begun organizing in Slovenia, and Sr. Jozefa remembers their army members trying to persuade Ivan to join. "Ivan didn't trust the Communists, so he and others organized the Domobranci army to protect our village," Sr. Jozefa says. "The Communists would come to our houses at night and steal our food and blankets and clothes."

The years between 1941 and the war's end were filled with fear and sorrow for Sr. Jozefa. One such moment came when her brother Franc was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Dachau (he later escaped). Others came when she herself was detained and questioned by the Communists.

The Communists proved to be the biggest threat to Slovenian happiness and peace. "In early May, 1945, the war was over," Sr. Jozefa says. "But Communists were taking over our country. We had to leave. We loaded our wagon and joined a procession that was miles long. We went through a long, dark, water-dripping tunnel to Austria. We walked for days, with the Domobranci fighting the Communists ahead. We settled into a camp in Austria, and the Domobranci were sent back to Slovenia, supposedly to make barracks for the civilians. But they fell into Communist hands and were slaughtered. Ivan was among them.

"When the Slovenians in the camp learned what happened to their men, there was one big cry, all night long. I will never forget that sound.

Things began to get better after that. We stayed in a more permanent camp for several years, and I made friends and learned how to sew. In 1949, the Sisters of St. Benedict sponsored us to come to Nauvoo (where the Sisters then lived). The Sisters seemed so very happy, and that impressed me. After a year, I decided to enter.

"I wasn't angry at the Communists, but I was so scared of them I used to wake up crying for Ivan. But after I made final profession, I never cried like that again. I'm grateful the rest of my sisters and brother survived. I have pretty good health and I can still laugh. Life is good!"